Friday, November 02, 2007

Family History

While I was sitting in sessions at my academic history conference, enjoying a very different kind of intellectual stimulation than I get from my days homeschooling with Son, he and David went exploring in Richmond. In addition to their visit to the science museum where they seemed to learn more about snakes than I can ever imagine absorbing, they also visited the Confederate Pyramid:



I wonder what the architects of this memorial were thinking, what symbolism they were intending.

And then there was this grave, among the thousands of graves:



And while Son and David grappled with this image of the complicated history of Jews in the American South, I was having lunch with a colleague who studies southern Jewish history.

I was raised as a non-religous person whose family had been Christian. Faith did not identify me. But my upbringing in the rural South, the child of southern white liberals involved in the Civil Rights Movement, was absolutely central to my sense of self.

I converted to Judaism--or at least my own weird combination of Jewish traditions, ritual observances, atheist beliefs, and leftist intellectual leanings--as an adult living in Philadelphia.

My southern self and my Jewish self are not connected. Although I am a southerner and I am a Jew, I am not a southern Jew. But those two parts of myself meet here in Richmond--as they do in many other southern cities. Everywhere from Charleston SC to Birmingham AL have a strong and old Jewish presence, one that has sometimes challenged the racial hierarchy of the traditional South and one that sometimes is highly complicit in its support.

All this leaves me with questions, a need to think about my pasts and my almost pasts, my fictive histories.

* * *

After David and Son returned from their adventures, they joined me at a reception where we got to spend some family time with my brother and father, both academic historians themselves.

My brother was asked to play the piano as background for part of the reception. At some point, my father (also a musician in his spare time) joined him for a duet.



Their hands are so similar. Striking.

Last year at this conference, an annual conference that was transformative for him back when he was young, my father's health was on such tenuous footing. Beforehand, he had feared he would not be able to attend at all, and during the conference he told me he assumed it would be his last.

And here he was this year, full of confidence and health and plans for the future, happy to be sharing his blessings with all his old friends, eager to meet the young newcomers to the profession.

It is wonderful to be here.

1 comment:

Sheepish Annie said...

This is one of those profound posts that gets me thinking about the connections between my "past" and my "now." Even though I think of myself as independent and unique in this world, I really am very much a product of my history. How I incorporated that history into the making of myself is my own work. But, it is important to remember that there were other hands at work before mine, right?

Nicely written post!

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